April 18, 2021

Despite, or maybe because of, the COVID-19 pandemic, people with money have been buying all sorts of investments with money they might otherwise spend on travel and experiences. The “Everything Rally” was one of the biggest positive surprises of 2020, and it’s still going on. Large-cap stocks, small-cap stocks, microcap penny stocks, cryptocurrencies, non-fungible token art, and Seattle real estate are all in demand right now. Most of my money is still invested in pretty uninteresting things like mutual funds, but in a moment of boredom my eyes turned to a box labeled “old handheld games” in the closet of my home office. Thirty sales and over $1,000 in gross revenue later, I’m feeling good about having cashed in.

I went to the Portland Retro Gaming Expo back in October 2019 primarily to see the Classic Tetris World Championships that took place in a (surprisingly small) room there. Among the many attractions at the Retro Gaming Expo was a giant hall of dealers: they included independent artists selling gamer fan art, independent game developers selling their work (including in Atari 2600 cartridge form), and dozens of tables with games and consoles from prior eras. I was stunned by the prices. Game Boy games that I bought for $30 in the early ’90s sold, still in their shrink-wrapped boxes, for $300. A custom translucent pink Nintendo 64 modified to output an HDMI signal sold for $1,200. A Power Glove sold for $3,500. A copy of Super Mario Bros. in its box, encased in a Lucite display frame with a certificate of authenticity, sold for $8,000. I went hunting for a Game Boy Micro, the tiny swan song of the Game Boy line that sold in 2005 for about $100, but didn’t find one there.

Even compared with the Retro Gaming Expo’s prices less than two years ago, old games are incredibly hot — particularly on eBay, the 25-year-old auction site that has been remarkably resilient as a marketplace for just about everything. Game Boy Micros sell on eBay for over $200, especially if they still work. My own stuff generally sold quickly, even the items that didn’t work, as there’s a community of people who buy as-is items to repair them and flip them for a profit. My old Sega Genesis Nomad, which powered on but would not boot a game, sold almost immediately for over $150. My buyer immediately set to work repairing it; if he can get it up and running, he could get at least $300 for it. Old game cartridge prices varied wildly: most of my cartridges sold for $5 to $10 plus shipping, with one (Sonic 2 for the Sega Game Gear) selling for just $0.01 and another (Sonic the Hedgehog Pocket Adventure for Neo Geo Pocket Color) selling for $107, nearly as much as my Neo Geo Pocket Color console itself. A few buyers made me offers to buy several cartridges or systems at once to save on shipping costs; I happily obliged. The real winners of this mania were eBay itself and PayPal, who between them took roughly 15% of my sales in fees. Still, the process couldn’t have been easier: eBay uses its 25 years of data to recommend starting prices, re-list unsold items at lower prices automatically, and evaluate offers and counteroffers for their desirability. I was impressed by how smart the company is; then again, with companies like Amazon and Facebook and StockX horning in on their core business of person-to-person sales, eBay has to innovate to survive just like any other company does.

Video gaming has been a surprising non-hobby for me during the last year-plus of homebound existence. I own a Switch and a PS4, plus Google sent me a Stadia controller for free (just before Google shut down its Stadia game studio), but none of them have seen much use. Instead I’ve been playing the mobile “game” Pokémon Go to earn experience points for walking and biking around and I’ve been fighting to stay in the Diamond League in Duolingo, a task that requires at least half an hour of language lessons per day. I’m also very “anti-nostalgic” for old games and consoles now. The Atari Lynx, Sega Game Gear, and Sega Nomad systems I sold all took six AA batteries for power — or, in the case of the Nomad, I could power it using an AC adapter nearly as heavy as the Nomad itself. While I’m not a fan of the hardwired batteries in most newer electronics, newer handheld systems are so much thinner, lighter, and less expensive that I could replace them every few years and still not spend as much money as a classic game collector would. In addition, a lot of older games really haven’t aged well. A couple of years ago I was excited to finally play through Final Fantasy VII when it was rereleased for the Switch, but even with a few quality-of-life patches like options to triple the speeds of walking and animation, FFVII just isn’t that much fun to play in the 2020s in the way that Tetris or Pac-Man or Super Mario Bros. still are — and those latter three games are still being remade and remixed for modern consoles. (FFVII too has a remake, but it’s yet another “move to the glowing dot and press A” game, and so I’m not very interested in it.)

Most of my box of nostalgia wasn’t actually games I had bought and played close to their release dates. I built up my collection in the 2000s, when I was in my 20s, out of a desire to play the games I hadn’t bought or received as a kid. Some of the people who were buying my old gear weren’t even planning to fix up or play these old games; they just wanted to display them, like trophies or art pieces. No rational explanation can justify today’s eye-popping game prices like $660,000 for Super Mario Bros. in mint condition. Are games good investments? Possibly, although most of my old games didn’t beat the S&P 500 in terms of return on investment. Are they scarce? Probably not, as the best games get rereleased and remade for the sake of profit. Are they cultural touchstones? Absolutely. Ten years ago a friend left town and asked me to sell a crate of old NES and SNES games; I sold most of the crate as a lot for $80, and as I carried it to work, I was stopped in the street by strangers who reacted with joy like I was holding a crate full of puppies. Whether people want to play them or just want to hold them, old games are hot. If you have some and they don’t spark joy in your life, sell them now!